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Any day at the Tribeca Film Festival is bound to be exciting. There’s a plethora of intriguing films, that you may not find elsewhere. It’s almost exhausting to sort through so many options. However, in the midst of promising features, there are definitely a few that stand out. So, what are some of the films that have captured our attention?

A River Below
Director: Mark Grieco
Category: Documentary Competition

One of the biggest trends in the world of documentaries is the so-called “issue doc”: nonfiction films that serve, not so much as “art,” but as a call-to-action in the name of some sort of problem. They have a very real purpose, sure, but should probably be considered as something completely different than what we usually think of as “documentary.” Something like Blackfish, from a few years back, is absolutely fine, but there’s no denying that it exists mainly for the purpose of creating awareness.

At first, A River Below seems like it’ll be that kind of documentary. We’re introduced to Fernando Trujilo, a marine biologist/activist who’s made it his mission to save the pink river dolphins of the Amazon River from extinction. These creatures, a symbol of Brazil itself, are threatened by both hunters (who use them as bait for scavenger fish) and habitat loss. A lesser documentary might explain the situation, give us some heartbreaking footage, address what we can do, and then call it a day.

However, A River Below has much more on its mind than just saving the pink river dolphins. Its other subject, in stark contrast to Trujilo the scientist, is Richard Rasmussen, a popular television host. It’s probably easiest to describe him as the Brazilian version of the Crocodile Hunter. The very famous Rasmussen (people are always stopping to take pictures with him) is equally passionate about saving the dolphins, though his methods of raising awareness are vastly different than Trujilo’s; when he films brutal footage of the slaughter of dolphins, in order to spread awareness, some feel he’s crossed a line.

What we get from A River Below then, is something like a meta-issue doc (we’re copyrighting the term!). While explaining the threats against the dolphins of the Amazon, it also raises all sorts of questions about activism itself. Is saving an endangered species truly worth it when the livelihoods of Brazilians (many of whom aren’t very well off) are at stake? What’s the best way to enact change? It’s thorny stuff, and the film treats a complicated situation with the nuance it deserves.

November
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Category: International Narrative Competition

Visually, November is the most striking film at Tribeca. This isn’t to say it’s the best-looking movie at the festival. But, it looks so much different from any of the other selections. Shot in black-and-white, with a heavy emphasis on close-ups (along with endearingly weird special effects), it is, at times, frustrating. However, it’s so unique in its aesthetic that it offers an interesting contrast to the more uniform look of the movies surrounding it.

It’s a style befitting the subject matter. November is based heavily on 19th century Estonian folklore, though it seems to exist outside of any real time or place. It’s set in a village where the normal and the extraordinary live side-by-side. The existence of things like werewolves and demons are simply accepted. Most notable, though, are the kratts: farm helpers created from tools, animal bones, and assorted other junk. Once assembled, farmers make a deal with the devil to bring their kratts to life. They’re one of the movie’s most notable elements; the low-tech special effects that animate these kratts are the true star of the show.

In a narrative sense, the audience is never given a real sense of who the characters are. At the same time, the whole sense of “anything goes,” is one of the things November has going for it.

The Boy Downstairs
Director: Sophie Brooks
Category: Spotlight Narrative

The Boy Downstairs is watchable. And that word, “watchable,” sounds like an insult, but it’s really quite the opposite. It’s easy to watch because it feels like visiting an old friend; it’s no secret that the romantic comedy, as a genre, has been on life support for years now. So, when you get the chance to see a rom-com that would’ve been more at home in the mid-90s than it is today, it feels very welcome. It’s got that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” feel.

Zosia Mamet plays Diana, a young woman who returns to New York City after spending a few years in London. She finds the perfect apartment: great location, charming landlady, etc. It isn’t until after she moves in that she discovers her ex-boyfriend, Ben (Matthew Shear)– whom she broke up with just before her move to London–lives in the unit right below her. Of course, a whole torrent of emotions and memories come rushing back (with portions of the story told in flashback). Diana wants to be friends, but Ben has a new girlfriend who doesn’t want him to have anything to do with her.

Look, you can probably figure out most of the plot on your own by this point. The Boy Downstairs isn’t reinventing the wheel – it’s just a really quality wheel of its own. There’re plenty of laughs, the performances are winning, and it all feels very old-fashioned in a pleasant way. It doesn’t break the mold, but movies like this are so rare these days that it doesn’t need to.

Make yourself heard!